How to write a nature-style review

Nature Reviews Neuroscience is one of the foremost journals in neuroscience. What do its articles look like? How have they developed? This blog post provides answers which might guide you in writing your own reviews.

Read more than you used to

Reviews in Nature Reviews Neuroscience cover more and more ground. Ten years ago, 93 references were the norm. Now, reviews average 150 references. This might be an example of scientific reports in general having to contain more and more information so as not to be labelled ‘premature’, ‘incomplete’, or ‘insufficient’ (Vale, 2015).


Reviews in NRN include more and more references.

Concentrate on the most recent literature

Nature Reviews Neuroscience is not the outlet for your history of neuroscience review. Only 22% of cited articles are more than 10 years old. A full 17% of cited articles were published a mere two years prior to the review being published, i.e. something like one year before the first draft of the review reached Nature Reviews Neuroscience (assuming a fast review process of 1 year).


Focus on recent findings. Ignore historical contexts.

If at all, give a historical background early on in your review.

References are given in order of first presentation in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Dividing this order in quarters allows us to reveal the age distribution of references in the quarter of the review where they are first mentioned. As can be seen in the figure below, the pressure for recency is less severe in the first quarter of your review. It increases thereafter. So, if you want to take a risk and provide a historical context to your review, do so early on.


Ignore historical contexts, especially later in your review. Q = quarter in which reference first mentioned

The change in reference age distributions of the different quarters of reviews is not easily visible. Therefore, I fit a logarithmic model to the distributions (notice dotted line in Figure above) and used its parameter estimates as a representation of how ‘historical’ references are. Of course, the average reference is not historical, hence the negative values. But notice how the parameter estimates become more negative in progressive quarters of the reviews: history belongs at the beginning of a review.


Ignore historical contexts, especially later in your review: the modeling outcome.

Now, find a topic and write that Nature Review Neuroscience review. What are you waiting for?

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Vale, R. (2015). Accelerating scientific publication in biology Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (44), 13439-13446 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1511912112

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All the R-code, including the R-markdown script used to generate this blog post, is available at

How Long Should a Scientific Publication be?

In one word: short. In two words: it depends.

A neuroscience expert faces the challenge of 100 new neuroscience articles being published on a daily basis. S/he will never be able to read all that. So, what can be done to get your own publication known to the community?

1) Know the reader and his/her lack of time
Science reading has become shorter as more and more articles get read per year but less time is spent per article. Within the last 30 years the articles read nearly doubled whereas the time spent per article nearly halved. Renear and colleagues (2009) call this a trend towards ‘literature surfing’ at the expense of careful reading.
Mind that this change in reading behaviour is not enough to compensate for the increase in scientific output. Over the same time span, while the number of read articles nearly doubled, the number of new science publications per year more than doubled. In a new and edgy field like neuroscience this trend is even more pronounced. Here, the output nearly quadrupled (see my earlier post).
scientis; reading; time; efficiency, time pressure
Scientists read more (orange) in less time (blue). This is efficient but is it good?
2) Follow publication trends
Perhaps as a result of the reduction in time spent reading each article, scientific publications have become shorter. To give an example, below I plot all reviews and review-like articles published in a well known neuroscience journal (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, as of April 2012). As can be seen easily, there is a significant trend to keep the reference sections shorter and shorter.
references in Nature Reviews Neuroscience
References in Nature Reviews Neuroscience: less and less and less
[Update 23/12/2016: this figure has the chronological order of reviews backwards. Reviews in NRN are actually getting longer and longer.]
3) Decide between efficiency and effectiveness
Efficiency: how much more do I get out of a long cumbersome article compared to a short one?
In terms of citations per page, the answer is nothing. Stanek posted a semi-humorous paper on arXiv reporting citations per publication page in the field of Astronomy. Between six and 50 pages there is not much influence of page count. One may call these papers normal articles. However, anything longer will reduce the citations added with each additional page. Curiously, anything shorter will actually increase it. The most efficient paper is 4 pages long and gathers around 16 citations, i.e. 4 citations per page.
Haslam (2010) did a similar analysis in Psychology. He compared short report formats with longer article formats and found reports to usually have a higher per page citation count than their longer cousins.
Effectiveness: how do I maximize the citations my publication can get?
Go for long articles. Stanek found articles around 50 pages long to receive the most citations. Haslam found longer article formats to have significantly higher mean citation counts.
If you strive for efficiency, go for a short report. They receive more impact per page. If you strive for effect, go for a long article. They receive more impact per publication.
4) A cautionary note: consider scientific progress
While shorter articles do allow for the faster dissemination of interesting findings, they offer less space to include replications of experimental effects and this can lead to more false positives making it into the field.
Furthermore, the field as such, i.e. some sort of accumulated understanding of what is known in different areas, can disintegrate if articles are not cross-linked through references. Ledgerwood & Sherman (2012) warn of an increased risk to rediscover what we already know because of a trend towards bite-size publications: science as a repetitive rather than cumulative process.
In a career sense the most worthwhile publications are the short ones. At least they will get read and cited efficiently. However, later in your career – if you haven’t succumbed to cynicism – you may actually care about science or be hopeful to make it in an academic career requiring a few highly cited articles. In this phase longer, more integrative articles are probably worth it.
Like with so many other phenomena, fast career-minded science is not necessarily good science.


Haslam, N. (2010). Bite-Size Science: Relative Impact of Short Article Formats Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5 (3), 263-264 DOI: 10.1177/1745691610369466

Ledgerwood, A., & Sherman, J. (2012). Short, Sweet, and Problematic? The Rise of the Short Report in Psychological Science Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7 (1), 60-66 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611427304

Renear AH, & Palmer CL (2009). Strategic reading, ontologies, and the future of scientific publishing. Science (New York, N.Y.), 325 (5942), 828-32 PMID: 19679805

Krzysztof Zbigniew Stanek (2008). How long should an astronomical paper be to increase its Impact? arXiv arXiv: 0809.0692v1


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1) from Renear & Palmer, 2009, p. 829

2) self-generated


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